Have you ever heard or even said, "I was in the arms of Morpheus"? You probably have, since it's become a common phrase that means you were asleep, and it's because Morpheus was the God of dreams in Greek mythology. One of the things that make the deity such an enigmatic character is that he is a primal god, meaning that he already existed when the Olympic Gods were created. Son of Nyx, goddess of the night, Morpheus was a winged creature capable of adopting a human form and appearing in the dreams of mortals. He and his brothers, Phantasos and Phobetor, were in charge of controlling the realm of dreams. Morpheus would deliver messages and prophecies sent by the gods to the mortals. Phantasos took the form of inanimate objects and controlled everything related to fantasies. And Phobetor, as you may imagine, created all sorts of nightmares by transforming into animals and monsters.
Dreams and their interpretations have been an essential part of human development. Many ancient cultures believed that dreams were their main connection to the spiritual world. Some primal societies believed that, while asleep, their souls would leave their bodies to wander in other realms, and dreams were just the reflection of that. In Mesopotamia, just like in the Greek myth, dreams were the means through which the gods communicated with mortals. In some Aboriginal tribes, dreams –or tjukurrpa– were stories passed from their ancestors to maintain their knowledge. However, Aristotle was the one who first associated dreams with the mind. He believed that it was impossible for gods to communicate through dreams because animals also dreamt, and the gods wouldn't waste their time on them. Instead, he thought dreams were influenced by our imagination. Following that idea, more than two thousand years later, Sigmund Freud wrote a whole theory about the interpretation of dreams as the only medium to have some access to our unconscious. So, these messages were sent through symbols we could analyze.
Freud's theories became a relevant way to understand how our mind works, but it was Surrealism that explored the depths of the human psyche and exploited it to create art. Surrealists used the techniques of psychoanalysis to create a more powerful and authentic form of art. For these artists, the brush (or the pen, in the case of surreal writers) became the media to express their subconscious ideas.
They valued spontaneity as the only valid way to boost creativity, so they didn't really think and meditate about their creations. They believed in the automatization of creativity to create free associations between ideas and images. Following this idea, here are 5 paintings inspired by the purest part of human unconsciousness: dreams.
The Hunter (Catalan Landscape) - Joan Miró, 1924
Miró's painting, also known as Catalan Landscape, is a mixture of elements and symbols that represent the autonomy of his native land. Miró always thought of his art as emerging from some part of his mind, distant to any logic. His abstract paintings made him one of the main representatives of Surrealism because of his unique exploration of the subconscious.
The Jungle - Wifredo Lam, 1943
With a mixture of cultures, Cuban painter Wifredo Lam ranged his style between Surrealism and Cubism. Through his paintings, he wanted to explore the history of slavery in Cuba, and at the same time, explore it through the connection between the psyche and creativity. Moreover, he depicted that inner relationship we all have with nature and the most basic instincts of our species.
The Persistence of Memory - Salvador Dalí, 1931
Salvador Dalí is probably the most famous and renown representative of Surrealism. He even thought of his paintings as “hand-painted dream photographs". But the movement he belonged to is not only about a lack of logic scenarios; just like dreams, they have elements of reality, which can be seen, in the case of this painting, on the cliffs at the back, which represent the Coast of Catalonia, his native land.
The Dream - Henri Rousseau, 1910
Also inspired by the Surrealist movement, Rousseau's paintings are not that abstract as the previous examples. This particular painting (belonging to a series of 25 paintings with a jungle theme) features a naked woman sitting on a couch, admiring a fantastical paradise. Many have interpreted the painting as a dream of this woman. Again, here we find that connection between our unconscious instincts and nature.
Two Children Are Threatened by a Nightingale - Max Ernst, 1924
Finally, this painting by German artist Max Ernst is the ultimate dream depiction. When he exhibited his work, he assured that it was inspired by a dream he had after having a fever due to measles. In this work, unrelated elements take over an everyday scenario. The fence that comes out of the canvas can be interpreted as the gate to the most intimate corners of his mind.
Surreal artists wanted to explore the imagery and mysteries of the subconscious. Just like ancient cultures, they worshipped the mystical nature of dreams and saw them as a path to greater understandings.